Emma Southon on the True Crime Stories of Ancient Rome
Few other societies have reveled in and revered the deliberate and purposeful killing of men and women as much as the Romans.
By Robin Lindley, J.D.
Lawyer and Historian
It’s no surprise to historians that ancient Rome was extremely violent, a martial society that thrived on a brutal, dehumanizing system of widespread slavery. Murder was common and, for the most part, the act was not considered a crime by the state. And murder prompted virtually every transformative moment in Roman history from the killing of Remus by Romulus at the founding of the city to the gruesome assassination of Caesar in the Senate, to the bloody homicidal deaths of many dictators and emperors and lesser notables. In one especially dark 50-year span, 26 emperors were murdered.
Historian Dr. Emma Southon brings this brutal world to life in her lively new book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome (Abrams Press).
In her book, Dr. Southon explores some of the most notorious homicides and assassinations in ancient Rome as well as the little known or forgotten stories of murder as she presents the Roman perspective on violence and lethal crime in politics, law, and daily social relationships. While based on extensive research and scholarship, her book is written in a conversational tone for a wide audience and peppered with Dr. Southon’s humor, profanity, and irreverent asides. She combines her profound knowledge of ancient history with her scholarly yet entertaining take on centuries of Roman carnage and her perspective on how society’s leaders and ordinary people saw homicide in their daily lives.
Dr. Southon holds a doctorate in ancient history from the University of Birmingham. Her other books include of Marriage, Sex and Death: The Family and the Fall of Rome and Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World. She also co-hosts a podcast entitled History is Sexy with writer Janina Matthewson, and she works full time as a bookseller at Waterstones in Belfast. Her background includes teaching ancient history. She is devoted to bringing history to a wide public.
Dr. Southon graciously responded by email to questions on her work and her new book on murder in ancient Rome.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Dr. Southon on your new book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome. Before getting to your recent book, I wondered how you decided on a career in history and then chose a focus on ancient history? Did your interest begin as a child?
Dr. Emma Southon: I always liked stories and people. History didn’t interest me a lot in school and I originally intended to either be a wildly successful novelist or a psychologist. But I chose to do an A-Level in Ancient History when I was 16 because the course included trips to Italy and Greece and I just fell head over heels for the Romans and their contradictions and excesses.
I actually did six weeks of a degree in psychology to continue my original plan before I realized that ancient history was my true love, dropped out and started again the next year! What I love about it is the same as what drew me to novels and psychology: I love people’s stories.
Robin Lindley: You earned a doctorate in history. Who are some of your influences as a writer and historian? Did you consider a career in teaching?
Dr. Emma Southon: I realized at the end of my PhD that a career in academia wasn’t for me because I wasn’t willing to make the immense sacrifices necessary to succeed. Years of short-term contracts, instability and constantly moving was not for me! I loved teaching a lot, and I loved students but academia is hard if you have a thin skin (which I do) and are not willing to suffer for a while. For a few years I taught academic writing in a university writing centre which was a nice compromise for me!
I recently realized that my major influence as a writer is Bill Bryson. I loved Bill Bryson when I was younger. He has a real talent for making complex things entertaining, easy reading so the reader learns without even realizing they are because they are having such a good time.
Robin Lindley: Bill Bryson is a master storyteller. It seems you have a special interest in bringing history from beyond the walls of academia and to the public at large. I noticed that you co-host a podcast called History is Sexy. What’s the focus of the podcast and what are some topics? From what you’ve learned, are you exciting more interest in history with the podcast?
Dr. Emma Southon: In History is Sexy my co-host Janina (who is a real-life novelist) and I answer questions from listeners which they want to know more about than just a Wikipedia article. So we have answered questions about all kinds of things, from Nazi paranormal research, which probably undermined the Nazi war effort a lot, to the history of professional wrestling, to why people drank so much beer in the Middle Ages.
My main aim with it is to demonstrate how complex and big history is and that seems to resonate with people. A lot of history podcasts present nice, neat, linear narratives and ours is not like that at all!
Robin Lindley: You’ve written an acclaimed biography of Agrippina—the notorious wife of Claudius and mother of Nero—and other work. What sparked your new, rather gruesome book on Roman history?
Dr. Emma Southon: A Fatal Thing emerged from my interest in true crime, and from talking to a friend who is a high school history teacher in Georgia who also has a big true crime interest. She told me that she uses famous true crimes as a teaching tool. For example, Charles Manson is a great way to start a conversation about 1960s countercultural movements etc. And I thought this was brilliant, and went looking for a book which had discussed Roman true crime! When I didn’t find one, I decided I had to write one.
Murder is such an interesting way of exploring what and who a society considers to be important and worth protecting, and who is considered expendable. And that tells us a lot about the ingrained values of a culture which they might not even be aware of themselves.
Robin Lindley: Who do you see as the audience for your new book? It’s much different than a scholarly monograph and your asides and humor and colorful language put it in another category all together. You establish a conversational tone as you describe the horror and then remark on it casually.
Dr. Emma Southon: I basically just imagine myself! I am quite a lazy reader of non-fiction and I will skim unless there is something that really grips me, so I write books that I find entertaining and interesting! I want the reader to feel what I felt reading Bill Bryson books – that we are pals hanging out and I’m telling them a good story. And that story is partly what happened in the past, and also how we know about what happened and how I found out about it and how I feel about it.
I want the reader to be as interested and amused and appalled by the Romans as I am and being sensible or scholarly is never a good way to do that. Also, I am English and live in Northern Ireland so I conversationally swear a lot, which means it sneaks into my writing!
Robin Lindley: You note that modern Americans and Brits are particularly intrigued by murder. As you wrote, we love crime movies and television series and one-third of the books we consume are crime novels. How do you see our fascination with crime compared to what you found about killing among ancient Romans?
Dr. Emma Southon: I think that both cultures are fascinated by death, because violent death is fascinating and scary. Modern British and American people are, for the most part, quite detached from death. People don’t die young or in childbirth or of disease anywhere near as much as Romans did, and we have medicalized death into hospitals and care homes so we really don’t see it often at all.
I have only seen embalmed dead bodies, and I saw my first one this year, so we don’t need much to fascinate us. A podcast of a man describing a death or description on a page is quite enough.
The Romans, on the other hand, saw death and experienced death all the time. Executions, and death by disease, and horrible accidents and death in childbirth were common, and dead bodies were not a rare sight so they needed a little more to captivate them in gladiatorial shows and spectacular executions. But at the core, I think they come from the same human place of being titillated and captivated by the horror of death.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process for the book? Did it differ from creating a more academic work on ancient history?
Dr. Emma Southon: The main difference between this and academic research is that there is a lot less input from other people (who always made me take my jokes out) and it was a lot quicker to research! I spent a year on researching A Fatal Thing, instead of the three or four it would take in academia. And no one made me take my jokes out!
Robin Lindley: In your research and writing, were there a few murders or other incidents that were especially surprising or new to you?
Dr. Emma Southon: The part that was newest to me was the realization that there were a lot of Romans and people in the empire who believed that their loved ones had been killed with magic and curses. Roman culture was very religious and saw both divine activity and magical activity in just about everything, while their medical knowledge was not great. So, often, when someone died of a disease that they didn’t recognize the family believed that they had been cursed and sometimes they even wrote this on their epitaphs. This means that lots and lots of natural deaths were categorized as murders by the families and the Romans thought that their society was even more murderous than it actually was!
Robin Lindley: From your book, Roman “civilization” was especially brutal and the people were bloodthirsty. You write that society “reveled in purposeful killing” and murder was not a crime. How was murder seen under Roman law?
Dr. Emma Southon: For the majority of the Republican period of Roman history the state didn’t legislate much. Most laws were concerned with property and civil disagreements. Morality didn’t enter into Roman law so murder never really came up.
It’s not until monarchical rule started to emerge under Sulla (82-79 BCE) that Romans started trying to control violence and began to develop a state which could – hundreds of years later – claim a monopoly on killing. This is largely because of the reliance of Roman society on slavery from the very start, where a great many enslaved people entered slavery as war captives. In order to control enslaved people, it is necessary for private citizens to be able to kill them. So Roman law had to legislate to allow for that, and once you make one subset of people “murderable” then it is very easy to allow lots of subsets of people to be murderable.
Robin Lindley: A related question perhaps: What did you learn about how Romans saw the value of human life? From your book, it appears there was not much sentimentality.
Dr. Emma Southon: Roman culture was incredibly martial. They are a war-loving people who define themselves by martial values, and their whole society is underpinned by slavery, so they are very unsentimental about large scale death. What they cared about very much was their hierarchical system and defending that system. Life was not valued and did not need to be protected, unlike an individual’s position within the social hierarchy.
And Romans were very interested in protecting their society but managing individual violence was not part of that. Individual murder was mostly a private, domestic affair which was no business of the state and was to be dealt with by the family of the victim. The state, such as it was, was only interested in violence when it involved someone with dignitas and fama. Fama is reputation and dignitas is prestige. Much like honor, a man gets them by achieving things in public, like political positions, military glory, winning court cases etc. When men with great dignitas are injured, then the structure of society is injured and that needs to be punished.
Robin Lindley: You found that murder within Roman families was seen as a family matter, to be resolved by the family.
Dr. Emma Southon: The family is the most important structure in Roman culture and individual behaviour is very much a family matter. The family, especially among the aristocracy, are basically large, sprawling clans all connected to one another and focused on honor and shame. Within this violence and killing were interpersonal issues to be dealt with by the paterfamilias. There is no police force or state prosecution apparatus to be harmed by violence or to resolves conflicts. There are only civil courts. This makes murder very hard to see because it is, except in the most extreme circumstances, a private matter to be dealt with quietly.
Robin Lindley: Roman society was supported by slavery and you describe the cruel dehumanization of enslaved people and the torture and killing of slaves as a mere daily routine. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about slavery and ancient Rome?
Dr. Emma Southon: Mostly that slavery was absolutely critical to Roman society and culture. Everything they did, from aqueducts to pretty jewellery to philosophy, was built on the back of countless millions of enslaved people who were part of every facet of life. They couldn’t wear togas without enslaved people to dress them; that’s how embedded in Roman life slavery was.
And it was brutal. Enslaved people had nothing and no rights and could never truly be free even if they were manumitted, and they were subject to violence constantly. They are so often written out of our modern understanding of Rome, or made to be happy servants, but Roman slavery was really all encompassing and horrific.
Robin Lindley: You also note that Romans saw murder as sport, as with gladiatorial games or the feeding of slaves and state enemies to wild beasts. This was entertainment. What was it in the Roman psyche that accepted these gruesome “games” as mere sport and didn’t cause the human reactions of disgust and revulsion?
Dr. Emma Southon: Again, Romans did not value human life in and of itself. They only valued a person’s place in society. The vast majority of people who entered the arena were enslaved or criminals, they were infames, which meant they were legally unprotected as they had no fama so they could be killed at will. People who were thrown to beasts to be killed were all criminals, and their execution was a public reminder of the awesome power of the state.
The Romans, much like modern day America and various countries which still have the death penalty, believed that some people gave up their right to live through criminal activities, their profession (actors, gladiators and sex workers were all infames), or simply because they were enslaved. This turned their deaths from tragedies into righteous entertainments which reinforced the status quo.
Robin Lindley: Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when readers think of murder in ancient Rome is the assassination of Julius Caesar. How do you see his murder?
Dr. Emma Southon: I tend to fall on the side of Brutus and Cassius in this one and understand their reasoning for killing him! He was trampling, illegitimately and very rudely, all over the Republic and was about to leave Rome to fight Parthia for years, which would make him effectively untouchable. Killing him looked like the only possible option to save the Republic (that was already dead).
And there was a clear context and honorable model for the assassins in Roman culture: killing a person who “threatened the Republic” had, by the Late Republic, become a legitimate and heroic action. So, although it turned out to be poorly thought out and very short sighted, I understand what Caesar’s killers were trying to do. I think that their actions were a legitimate assassination of a tyrant!
Robin Lindley: How did the Romans view suicide?
Dr. Emma Southon: Romans saw suicide as a moral issue Suicide could be a heroic action, in the face of corruption or injustice. The emperor Otho, for example, killed himself in order to end a civil war and prevent further loss of life in battle and was seen as a heroic and moral character. Equally they considered people like Nero, who was too afraid to take his own life and tried to get other people to kill him, to be pathetic and cowardly.
In general, Romans liked people who faced death without fear, like gladiators and people who chose to take their own lives. They considered this to be brave and quintessentially Roman/masculine.
Robin Lindley: You mention judicial killings and the death penalty in Rome and you describe the special Roman use of crucifixion. What did you learn about crucifixion and why this form of torture and ultimately death became widely used by Romans?
Dr. Emma Southon: Crucifixion has three benefits to the Romans: it’s very horrible, very efficient and very public. People died slowly and then hung, rotting, in public as a sign for everyone else.
Crucifixion was saved for the lowest of the low criminals and enslaved people and for crimes which the ruling powers felt needed to be made an example of. The Romans liked to use extreme aversion methods to show people living within the empire what happened if you crossed a line and crucifixion, even more than executions in the arena, were the most efficient way to do that. The aim was to humiliate the victim and warn everyone who saw the victim.
Robin Lindley: How did Roman religion affect Roman law? Did religion condemn killing?
Dr. Emma Southon: Roman religion has no issue with killing, and – very occasionally – encouraged it in strange forms of human sacrifice. Roman religion was far more interested in keeping capricious gods happy than the morality of people.
When Christianity became the dominant religion, [killing] changed as Christianity is interested in the state of a person’s individual soul and their behavior. Certain forms of killing became much less prominent. Constantine I introduced the first law which made deliberately killing enslaved people illegal, which fundamentally changed people’s relationship with the enslaved members of their household. Later, gladiatorial games were phased out and then banned in 399 CE by emperor Honorius (although the ban didn’t take and had to be reissued five years later).
Capital punishment was very much still part of Christian-Roman culture but the notion of the individual soul made the culture less gung-ho about killing.
Robin Lindley: You stress how enslaved people and other marginalized groups were especially vulnerable to cruelty and thoughtless killing. We face some of these issues today in other contexts. As you report this history, do you see parallels to our present situation? What lessons does this history hold for us?
Dr. Emma Southon: There is a concept in modern criminology of the ‘less-dead,’ which refers to people who can be killed without state apparatus and society at large worrying too much. Sex workers are less-dead, with sex workers of colour being the least dead. These people can be murdered and there will never be an outcry and the police may not bother to investigate. These are the modern day infames and hopefully future societies will look at us as we do the Romans.
As for what I would like people to learn from the book, the main thing is that the Romans were not some pinnacle of “western civilization” that was all while columns and white togas. The Roman empire was a brutal, cruel place which ground up human life both for fun and for profit. There is a strong tendency to idealise and idolize the Romans and it’s my mission to make that difficult!
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or your work? Do you have another project in the works?
Dr. Emma Southon: I am currently working on my next book, which is a history of the Roman empire in the lives of 15 women from around the whole empire: from Yorkshire to Syria.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Dr. Southon for your thoughtful comments and your fascinating new book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Best wishes on your work.
Originally published by History News Network, 06.30.2021, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.